To a large extent the ability to screen high-risk women for breast cancer using the technique known as mammography has helped detect breast cancers earlier and helped increase survival rates of the disease. Whereas mammograms are low energy X-rays used to detect breast abnormalities, digital mammography is the use of digital receptors and computers instead of X-ray film to examine the breast.
What is digital mammography?
The procedure is also known as full field digital mammograms where solid-state detectors are used rather than the X ray film that regular mammograms use. Rather like a digital camera, electrical signals are used to produce the image of the breast tissue on a computer screen or monitor rather than the X ray print that a conventional mammogram would produce. However a special film can be used to print out the findings of a digital procedure as well.
Additionally there are computer-aided systems that take the help of computers to detect breast abnormalities such as a mass, density, any calcification, cysts or malignancy.
The aim of digital mammography as well as any other varieties is the same: to try and detect any abnormality so that further analysis can determine whether a biopsy is required and subsequent treatment if any. T
hey can be used for screening (to detect any abnormality) as well as for diagnosis (to find out more about any abnormality that may be detected by the patient or otherwise).
Is digital mammography better than conventional mammography?
From the patient’s point of view, there is little or no difference between the digital and conventional mammography. Both use x-rays to produce images of the breast, but in the digital procedure there is a digital receptor instead of the X-ray film. These images are then beamed on a screen, which theoretically may give the radiologist a clearer view of the breast tissue.
Proponents of the procedure say that it produces the kind of results that enable faster and more accurate biopsies to be performed. This means that the examination time that a woman has to undergo may be shorter and her inconvenience and discomfort is shorter in duration. Proponents also claim that the procedure may mean reduced radiation exposure and also reduced need for retests.
Digital mammography is as accurate in detecting abnormalities as conventional mammograms, but there is little to show that it is better at detecting breast cancer. There is no significant advantage of this more recent technology over the more conventional technology. In particular it has been found that the technology is no better in detecting breast cancer in postmenopausal women, who are at highest risk of the disease.
Researchers claim that digital mammography is still in its infancy and there is currently work ongoing to improve it and make it a more effective screening and diagnostic tool. Though at this time the technology is not specifically recommended over the conventional procedure by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force as the procedure becomes more refined it could in future take the place of standard mammography.